By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 24, 2007; A08
BEIJING, Jan. 23 -- Breaking 12 days of silence, China confirmed Tuesday that it had fired a guided missile into space to destroy one of its satellites in a test that generated protests from the United States and other nations.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao, said the United States and other governments have now been informed about the secret test through diplomatic channels. He emphasized that the use of anti-satellite technology does not mean China has abandoned its long-standing opposition to the military use of space.
"I should stress at this time that the test was not targeted against any country and does not pose a threat to any country," Liu said at a ministry briefing. He added that he knew of no plans for another such test by the Chinese military.
The Chinese test shot, which culminated in the destruction of an overage weather satellite 537 miles above Earth, was detected by U.S. monitors Jan. 11, but the Chinese government refused to discuss it. The test raised concern in Washington, where officials and analysts interpreted it as a signal by China that U.S. military satellites could be vulnerable to attack.
With the U.S. military heavily reliant on satellites for reconnaissance, navigation, weapons guidance systems and anti-missile defenses, China's ability to shoot down satellites could pose an added threat in the event of hostilities over Taiwan. In addition, China's newly demonstrated ability could threaten Taiwanese satellites monitoring Chinese short- and medium-range missile deployments along the Taiwan Strait.
U.S. officials said they were also dismayed by the Chinese test because the United States and Russia, after testing anti-satellite technology in the 1980s, more recently have abstained from such tests, partly because destroying satellites creates debris that could damage satellites in nearby orbits. Liu declined to address questions on this danger.
Experts estimate that several hundred thousand debris fragments were created by the destruction of the satellite, which orbited in a section of space where as many as 125 other satellites fly.
China, which has embarked on an accelerated military modernization program, has repeatedly emphasized its desire to be able to compete in 21st-century warfare. The military, which runs the space program, has identified space-based communications and sensing systems as key to such efforts. Some Chinese military theorists also have advocated asymmetrical warfare, in which pinpoint weapons would be used to disrupt the more advanced and better-equipped U.S. military.
At the United Nations, China has consistently advocated the peaceful development of space and pushed for an international agreement to prevent it from becoming the theater for a new arms race. The Bush administration has opposed China's suggestion for an international conference to pursue such an accord, arguing there is no need for it.
In that light, Liu was asked whether the anti-satellite test violated the spirit of China's proclaimed position and, in any case, why China kept silent for nearly two weeks while officials around the world were discussing it on the basis of U.S. intelligence reports.
"We have nothing to hide," he responded. "After the relevant parties expressed their concerns, we made our response about the test quickly. We stressed that China opposes weaponization and an arms race in outer space."
Staff writer Marc Kaufman in Washington contributed to this report.